Saturday, April 25, 2015

The time problem

What do you do when you no longer have enough continuous time and attention to enjoy the games that you love?

I am currently typing this on an iPhone sitting on my couch, while I'm supposed to be watching this very active baby that has just figured out how to crawl and climb. Typing on this device is pretty cumbersome, but the convenience compared to carrying a laptop around makes it worth it. Especially since every couple of minutes she will start climbing someplace potentially dangerous and I have to go bail her out. As this playing/blog typing activity of ours moves around the house randomly, I need a super accessible, mobile device with me. If I didn't have one, I wouldn't be able to use these little pockets of free time to do this post.

This is a single example of various life events that have happened during the last 10 years or so and have radically changed the structure of my free time. I have to finally accept something I was fearing for quite some time: I no longer have the continuous free time or attention to enjoy my favorite kinds of games.

Some games demand continuous free time

When I was much younger, I had countless uninterrupted hours to spend playing games like Civilization, Master of Orion, Heroes of Might and Magic, SimCity, Starcraft. From sneaking into the computer room at 6 am on Saturday mornings as a teenager, to skipping most classes at university, I always managed to find the continuous time these games demanded to be enjoyed. 

Fast forwarding to today, the experience all these games offered is still there even better, either through good sequels, worthy spiritual successors, or interesting spin-offs. And as much as I want to, I can no longer play any of them.

Why not? Here's how it usually goes when I try, in Civilization IV for example. Creating a new game, choosing all starting parameters, doing the initial exploration of the map, and building the first few cities takes at least 30 minutes. This process is boring, because it's very similar between every time I start a new game. Sure, there's some uniqueness depending on the map, but the ratio of interesting decisions/minute at the beginning of the game is very low. It takes at least a few more hours of playing to get to the interesting stuff (meeting a lot of other nations, developing complex diplomatic relations, choosing who to ally with and who to attack, making meaty tactical decisions on a map filled with friendly, allied and enemy units) can easily take hours. It's after going through the motions that the game usually gets exciting. The early hours are meaningful as setting up the stage for the later gameplay, but other than that are not that interesting to me. Worse, in some instances the anticipated “later stage fun” may never come, because of random events than unbalance you from the competition, making it too easy or too hard to win. 

When I was young, spending a few hours to get to an interesting map was not a problem. I knew I had 8-10 hours just that one day to play, and the intro hours offered a low pressure "ease-in" period, and built up anticipation for what happens later. Now, with a fractured schedule, I can never seem to get to the interesting stuff. While it is possible, in theory, to keep chugging at the game for 20 minute intervals at a time, in practise I find I lack the patience to do that kind of context switch all the time. When I come back to an old game I very regularly feel like I don't remember exactly what happened, and I feel disconnected from that game instance. Funnily enough, I feel the urge to start a new game instead, as if that's making the whole situation better. I'm not sure if there's a psychological reason for all this, and this thinking process fascinates me as I try to analyze it somewhat detached. But, it's not something I feel like I need to "fix": fun either happens or it doesn't, and beating myself up for "not having fun when I should be in theory" doesn't strike me as healthy thinking.

Spending 6 continuous hours to get to the good parts in Civilization was never a problem when I was 14

This is hardly unique to Civilization. The initial hours in any 4x space strategy game I've played are extremely boring. I'm sorry to all the hardcore fans out there, but researching the same technology for the millionth time so your initial fleets can jump a bit faster in the new game’s map gets old pretty quick. If I spend my limited time on something, I would really rather spend it on things I haven’t done before.

This is all about the single player experience. On the multiplayer side, it's even harder to have a decent experience with these kinds of games, and I have all but stopped trying any more. Playing a multiplayer game of Starcraft 2 requires an open ended amount of time, usually from 15 minutes to an hour, during which you have to dedicate your attention 100% to the game. Now I might be ok with finding 15-20 uninterrupted minutes here and there, but the fact that it's an unknown amount of time really kills it for me. Finding time to coordinate and play with my friends is rare enough these days, I don't need the extra stress of having to explain to them I really only had 20 minutes to dedicate to this game so now I'm quitting mid-session. This is all pretty sad because I have always felt the multiplayer aspect is vastly more interesting in these kinds of games. Beating the AI in Master of Orion 2 for the millionthtime feels OK, I guess. But there's a whole other feeling to interact with a live human opponent, and I suspect it doesn't solely have to do with the fact that a human is smarter/more unpredictable. Playing with or against someone I have history with (both in game, or in other games, or in real life), someone who has been a friend but now betrays me or vice versa, awakes certain feelings that no AI can possibly recreate. 

Some games demand too much learning and attention

A few weeks ago I decided to look for a space strategy game on Steam, secretly hoping there may be something more modern out there that could be a good alternative to Master of Orion 2. I don't remember the name of this game, but it did come with good reviews. This is one of the first screenshots it came with: 

I don't mean to pick on this game. This UI and systems complexity is pretty typical for many space strategy games. It is even a feature for many players (especially on PC) who view this kind of complexity as necessary for the game to have depth. I am not one of these players. I've seen depth in very simple games. Even if I was attracted to this kind of complexity, I simply wouldn't have enough time or energy to dedicate to learn it, just for the off chance the game is good. I'd rather invest my free time on something I can decide quickly if it's for me or not. In this particular game's case, the screenshot was a huge turnoff.

The learning curve, time investment and mental effort required to understand how to play a game has ruined many other experiences that would otherwise be perfect for me.

Eve Online is a good example of this. In theory, it’s the perfect game for me. It expertly  fulfills the promise of being a small part in a vast universe shaped largely by other players actions. It’s even relatively friendly to my time schedule: you can go online for 10-20 minutes, and have enough time to manage your skill progression, continue the trip to your destination, maybe even do a mission. It has extremely deep, almost unique social structures. I can make new friends within the game and form complex relationships that lead to excitement, drama, heartbreak, etc. All of this is great. In theory. But it's no good to me if I am completely unable to understand half of what’s going on the screen at any given time. My honest efforts to penetrate the black box systems have all ended in frustration.

I mean, I don't even know where to start looking when I am constantly presented screens like this within the first hour into the game. 

Again, when I was young, this wasn't much of a problem. Even pre-internet, there were many resources I could turn to, spend continuous hours studying magazines or learning the games' ins and outs by trial and error. But these days, I can no longer do any of that.

I am happy I'm not the only one who thinks Eve is impenetrable.

OK, who am I kidding. I'm sure I'll sign up for another free trial a few months from now, after I read some blog post on how a corporation deviously destroyed an entire alliance from within after infiltrating it with spies. I just wish Eve could deliver on its vast promise without all this impenetrable (to me) complexity.

What about games that demand neither?

It's no accident that most of the games that are addressing these problems head-on are on very accessible platforms: web, tablets and phones. All these offer almost instant access to games (through very fast or non existent downloads, no payment barrier, very quick to learn rules). Most of the players on these platforms don't have all the time in the world to play or learn how to play the games they download. So in order to survive, developers on these platforms understand that they need their games to cut away all the fat, put the player straight into the interesting parts, create interfaces so simple that anyone can understand how to play within seconds, make the games fun to play in very short sessions while also optionally allowing longer sessions. 

But for me personally, it's only a subset of these games I'm particularly interested in: the persistent ones, that allow constant progress over time. The Civilization issue I mentioned above (spending 30+ minutes and having nothing to show for it in the long term, and even being tempted to start a new game instead if I revisit that session days later) does not exist with persistent games. Persistent games allow short sessions to still contribute, little by little, to long term progress. Two years into Clash of Clans, I feel a great sense of progression that came piece by piece from multiple short but fun 5 minute sessions each day. Multiple months into OGame, I have expanded my empire to many new planets, which will be there forever. If and when I choose to come back, I will still have a fresh experience compared to starting a new game all over again. 

A great side effect of such good persistent games is that they can be played for months and still provide fresh, new challenges. The best ones become part of my daily routine. I don't have to keep searching for a new game to finish every few weeks, like I used to do when I was playing console games. That search mentality and the constant searching of the next good game is not very compatible with my schedule any more, and I simply don't have the energy to keep doing it. The mere act of trying a new game has a high barrier, especially when I know most of the new games I try won't stick.

What if we could have the best of both worlds? 

But as fun as some of these simple-to-learn, persistent mobile/web games have been, I still feel we are missing experiences that provide the depth of the evergreen classics I was playing in my youth. Amidst all the discussion about the overflood of games in the app store, I cannot point to a single persistent strategy game that provides any experiences close to what Master of Orion, Civilization, Heroes of Might and Magic offered. 

What if we can have games with a lot of the depth, but little of the UI and systems complexity typical on PC and console platforms? Games that are friendly to any time schedule, and can be played among all kinds of distractions? Actually social games that allow keeping in touch with real life friends, and making new friends in-game, without mandating our schedules match exactly? Games that can be played for months or years, become a part of the more dedicated players life, and provide great sense of progression over time? Those are the kinds of games I would really be interested to play. I do believe that we as an industry have a lot of potential space to explore there, and that's something I want to expand on future posts.

As I am now lucky enough to be able to work on my own games, the above thoughts weigh heavily on what kind of game I want to make. This first post is first a way for me to collect my thoughts, help me realize why I am doing this, what I am passionate about, a sort of compass to help make decisions far into the future. But it is also a shout out to developers who may feel the same, and are passionate about building similar games. Teaming up with a passionate team of developers who are making a game for themselves first is the only way I know of to make something other people are also going to find worth playing. And while there are no guarantees of success, at least this road is less likely to create regrets 40 years from now (I doubt there's any chance the old man version of me will be thinking "I wish I hadn't tried to do the games I loved back then, what the world really needed was more Candy crush clones"). 

I am looking forward to recording my journey as a developer and gamer over the next several years. If you have any feedback on this or upcoming posts, please get in touch.